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Miraculous Metamorphoses
Paul HINDEMITH (1895-1963)
Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber (1943) [20:39]
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
The Love for Three Oranges – Suite (1925) [16:26]
Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
The Miraculous Mandarin – Suite (1928) [17:36]
Kansas City Symphony/Michael Stern
rec. 5-11 February, 2012, Helzberg Hall, Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, Kansas City, Missouri. HDCD

Last year I was impressed by a recording by Michael Stern and the Kansas City Symphony (review). On that occasion their programme consisted of English music. Now Keith O. Johnson has recorded them again for Reference Recordings in a programme of demanding and colourful twentieth century orchestral showpieces. The earlier recording was made in the Community of Christ Auditorium in Independence, Missouri in 2011 but since then the orchestra has moved into its new home, the Helzberg Hall in the Kaufmann Center for the Performing Arts, which was opened in September 2011. That’s the venue for this present recording.
Stern has selected a challenging and exciting programme. Despite its rather unwieldy title the Hindemith piece has become established as a virtuoso showpiece. At the start of the first of the four movements I thought that the sound was somewhat lacking in bass amplitude but when I turned up the volume control a couple of notches this problem disappeared. In the Turandot: Scherzo the percussion is especially well caught in the recording and the complex layers of the score come across very well, especially all the background trilling. This is an excellent performance, not least in the jazzy fugato which is crisp and taut – the timpani at the climax of this section have terrific presence. There’s some fine string tone to enjoy in the third movement and also good woodwind solo work, particularly from the first flute and clarinet. The March finale is jaunty and full of vitality with the horn section covering itself in glory. Stern and his players put the music across with dash and no little brilliance. This score has been a favourite of mine ever since I first encountered it through Abbado’s Decca recording over forty years ago. I enjoyed this Kansas performance very much.
There’s much to admire in the Prokofiev too. The Infernal Scene is powerful, spiky and sinister, the music benefiting from vivid playing and recorded sound. The famous jaunty little March comes over very well: the players seem to relish it. There’s finesse and warmth in The Prince and the Princess where Prokofiev gives full rein to his bittersweet lyrical side. Finally, Flight is despatched with great drive and energy. Overall, this suite is done very well. The playing is crisp and pointed and the orchestra puts the music across convincingly.
Bartók’s lurid tale is heard in the suite form rather than the complete ballet. Perhaps choral forces were not available but there would have been ample room for the complete score on this disc. Stern leads a good account of the suite even if, perhaps, the hairs don’t quite stand up on the back of the listener’s neck. The opening is feverish, with Bartók’s garish scoring well realised. Later on the savage elements of the score come over well – the appearance of the Mandarin is suitably powerful – but the way the more delicate passages are done is just as noteworthy. For example, the woodwind soloists shine on many occasions, one such point being the sinuous, atmospheric clarinet solo that begins at 2:30. Equally, the girl’s tentative, frightened dance before the Mandarin is played sensitively. Inevitably, though, in this particular score it’s the way the savage, pungent passages are played that stick in the mind and the Kansas players acquit themselves well in this respect with the snarling brass making a strong impact. The chase in the last couple of minutes is very strongly projected. The strings really dig in at the start and Stern drives the music forward almost brutally with the brass snarling and sniping in the background and the percussion impelling everything onwards. The very detailed and present recorded sound is a huge asset in a passage such as this.
Stern faces tough competition in this programme. I see Dan Morgan was very taken with Edward Gardner’s recent Melbourne recording of the Bartók suite, which I’ve not heard, while reminding us of the imposing presences in the catalogue of the Abbado and Boulez versions (review). In the Hindemith competition again comes from many sources, including Abbado in his 1968 LSO/Decca recording, now reissued on Australian Eloquence and sounding mightily impressive in all respects, not least the engineering (ELQ4806611). As for the Prokofiev suite, it recently turned up in an all-Prokofiev programme that Dave Billinge admired (review) and this is but one of several recommendable available recordings. In short, all three pieces are well represented in the catalogue already. However, this Reference Recordings disc offers, for one thing, the convenience of assembling these three important scores together. More than that, though the Kansas City Symphony may yield to the likes of the LSO and the Chicago Symphony in terms of sheer virtuosity their performances here are very good indeed and do full justice to the scores: no one buying this disc will feel short-changed in that respect. Then there’s the question of the sound, which is very impressive indeed.
Listening again to the previous disc of Vaughan Williams and Elgar I have the impression that the acoustic in which those performances were recorded was a bit more resonant whereas the acoustic in the Helzberg Hall seems to be clean and very clear though not in any way cold and analytical. Engineer Keith O. Johnson and producer David Frost, who were responsible for both recordings have once again done an excellent job. The sound on this new disc is very impressive: it has impact and presence, an abundance of detail registers while at the same time the ‘big picture’ of the sound of the whole orchestra is conveyed very convincingly.
Once again the booklet notes have been written by Richard Freed and they’re a model of their kind. The notes about each piece are packed with information – though not so much as to be indigestible – and his enthusiasm for the music is very evident.
The disc offers relatively short playing time but don’t be deterred by that. This is an impressively played and engineered programme and the convenience of having these three works on the same disc is not to be sneezed at. If the programme attracts you as much as it attracts me I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. I see from Michael Stern’s biography on the orchestra’s website that their next Reference release will be devoted to the music of Saint-Saëns. Since the Helzberg Hall boasts a substantial brand new organ, made by the Canadian firm Casavant Frère, it seems likely that Saint-Saëns’ Third Symphony has been selected to show off the orchestra’s new home. The piece should sound mightily impressive in a ‘Prof. Johnson 24-Bit’ recording. For now, however, this present disc is well worth hearing.
John Quinn